Contact Info


The Politics of Nation-Building

Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover editions

More info on the book here


How do states decide their policies toward “non-core” groups—any aggregation of individuals that a state’s ruling elite perceives as an unassimilated ethnic group? What accounts for the variation in diaspora policy across different groups of co-ethnics living abroad by the same government? Both my published book and the one that I am currently writing serve my long-term goal of contributing to our understanding of states’ management of diversity that may originate from national minorities, immigrants, diasporas, or refugees.  Bot emphasize and explore the importance of international security considerations in domestic policy-making.  

In my research, I am particularly interested in the role of decision makers’ perceptions about foreign involvement in their domestic affairs and the impact these perceptions have on the planning and implementation of state policies.  The first book, discussed directly below along with related projects, examines these issues through the lens of nation- and state-building, and explores decision-making processes with regard to policies targeting non-core groups within the country. My second book views these issues through the lens of states’ diaspora management policies, and explores policies directed at members of the core group living abroad.

Thus, my research interests lie at the intersection of comparative politics and international security. I aim to develop theoretical frameworks that cross geographic boundaries. Though my empirical work concentrates on the Balkans and Turkey, I have also published analyses of electoral competition in Sub-Saharan Africa, of nationalism in Asia and the Middle East, and of European political developments.
Nation- and State-Building

Under what conditions are state elites likely to target a non-core group with assimilation, grant it minority rights, or remove it from the state? Many scholars who have addressed this question have focused on domestic explanations for state behavior, while ignoring international factors. In The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities (Cambridge University Press, February 2013), I offer a geostrategic explanation for why states pursue distinct policies for different ethnic groups. Specifically, I argue that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups are driven by its foreign policy goals and its interstate relations with the external patrons of these non-core groups. Through a detailed study of the Balkans, I show that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state's foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group's external patrons. If the non-core group is perceived as mobilized by a rival state, the government is more likely to adopt policies of assimilation (if it is status quo) or exclusion (if it is revisionist), while groups backed by allied states are more likely to be accommodated. Non-core groups without external links are more likely to be targeted with assimilationist policies. The argument presented in the book bridges comparative politics and international relations’ literatures pertaining to the process of national integration.

The book has already garnered substantial attention, winning the 2014 European Studies Book Award by the Council for European Studies for the best first book on any subject in European Studies published within a two-year period and The Peter Katzenstein Book Prize for the best first book on International Relations, Comparative Politics, or Political Economy in 2013, as well as an honorable mention by the Rothschild Prize in Nationalities and Ethnic Studies committee of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in 2014. The book has also been reviewed in various journals including Perspectives on Politics, International Studies Review, Nations and Nationalism, and Public Administration and is being taught at Universities around the country, including at Duke, Yale, and Northwestern.

This is the first book that systematically documents nation-building policies in the post-WWI Balkans and uses both historical and political science methods to analyze state policies toward non-core groups. The theory is tested against a variety of alternative explanations on multiple levels of analysis including a dataset of nation-building policies towards all politically relevant non-core groups in the Balkans after WWI, archival evidence on case studies focusing on the treatment of a few non-core groups over time, and a microlevel subnational study of a religiously, culturally, and linguistically heterogeneous province. The book makes three novel conceptual moves: from the uncritical use of the term “minority” to “non-core group”; from the restrictive “homeland” to more analytically accurate “external power”; and, from the dichotomous conceptualization of nation-building policies as “inclusion/exclusion” or “violent/non-violent” to “assimilation, accommodation, and exclusion.”

I built on some of the material and arguments developed in my book, to produce stand-alone articles related to my research agenda on nation-building. I published a chapter in an edited volume that was part of the Belfer Center Studies in International Affairs series (MIT press) on the study of nation-building policies in the Balkans.

An out-of-sample test of my argument in China was published in Security Studies (co-authored with Enze Han, SOAS). In that article, we relaxed several assumptions of my argument from the book to explore the impact that the relative power of the external patron has on the processes of nation-building as well as ethnic group mobilization. Given the existence of an external patron, an ethnic group's response to a host state's policies depends on the perceptions about the relative strength of the external patron vis--vis the host state and on whether the support is originating from an enemy or an ally of the host state. The article presents five configurations and tests our theoretical framework based on data on the eighteen largest ethnic groups in China from 1949 to 1965. We trace the Chinese government's policies toward these groups, and examine how each group responded to the various nation-building policies.

State-Building, Secession, and Nationalist Movements

I have published a paper on third party state-building efforts in collaboration with Keith Darden (American University). This work flows naturally from the concluding chapter of my book where I draw the policy implications of my argument. The motivation for this project was our dissatisfaction with widespread arguments in both scholarly and policy-making circles that the path to stability in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan is to increase the size of the police and the army. Our concern was that an increase in the number of people who are trained in the arts and implements of force does little, on its own, to build the capacity of the state or to increase order. We suggest that effective state-building requires effective nation-building. It rests on a successful effort to create social cohesion, loyalty and legitimacy of rule. If efforts to build coercive capacity precede efforts to build loyalty and legitimacy, the result is more likely to be a future civil war than a stable governing state. A second, and more sobering, argument we make is that nation-building is at least a generational process. Although these strategies take time, the hastier alternatives have proved historically to be dangerously ineffective. Nation-building requires a durable commitment, and, thus, in most contemporary settings third-party state-building is almost certain to fail. We conclude with some thoughts on what a more general theory of third-party nation-building would have to take into account, highlighting three important elements: First, the actor who is doing the nation-building; second, the structure of the international environment during the operations; third, the characteristics of the local population. Our article was published in Ethnopolitic as lead article
and the editors of the journal invited comments by Fotini Christia (MIT), Erin Jenne (Central European University), Gordon Bardos (Columbia University), as well as from David Siroky and Yoav Gortzak (Arizona State University).

Darden and I also have an article in Comparative Political Studies entitled “Threats to Territorial Integrity, National Mass Schooling, and Linguistic Commonality.”  We ask: Why are some countries more linguistically homogeneous than others? We posit that the international environment in which a state develops partially determines the extent of its linguistic commonality and national cohesion. Specifically, the presence of an external threat of territorial conquest or externally supported secession leads governing elites to have stronger incentives to pursue nation-building strategies to generate national cohesion, often leading to the cultivation of a common national language through mass schooling. Comparing cases with similar levels of initial linguistic heterogeneity, state capacity, and development, but in different international environments, we find that states that did not face external threats to their territorial integrity were more likely to outsource education and other tools for constructing identity to missionaries or other groups, or not to invest in assimilation at all, leading to higher ethnic heterogeneity. States developing in high threat environments were more likely to invest in nation-building strategies to homogenize their populations.

A thematically related article that I co-authored with Nadav Shelef (University of Wisconsin-Madison) was published in Security Studies. In “Which Land is Our Land? Domestic Politics and Change in the Territorial Claims of Stateless Nationalist Movements,” we explore the conditions under which stateless nationalist movements change the geographic area they see as appropriately constituting the nation-state they aspire to establish. We argue that shifts in the territories stateless nationalist movements seek as their nation-states occur as a byproduct of the politically competitive domestic environment in which these movements are embedded. As nationalist movements engage in the competition for power and survival, their leaders may alter their rhetoric about the geographic extent of the desired national state to meet immediate political challenges that are often only loosely related to territorial issues. If these initially tactical, rhetorical modulations successfully resolve the short-term challenges that spurred their adoption, they can become institutionalized as comprising the new territorial scope of the desired national state.  Our article draws a number of hypotheses from the literatures on nationalism and state-formation that might account for such changes. We compare their predictions about the timing, direction, and process of change to the empirical record in the two stateless national movements in the post-Ottoman space: Fatah and the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. This article is part of a larger data collection project we hope to undertake.

Diaspora Management

I am currently at work on a second, single-authored book about the politics of diaspora management. 

My work on this began in 2008, when I collaborated with Elpida Vogli (University of Thrace) on a chapter analyzing Greek incorporation strategies toward co-ethnic repatriate groups. That project was motivated by the observation that the Greek state followed different policies toward similar sized communities of Greek repatriates from the former Soviet Union and Albania in the 1990s. Our chapter, which was published in 2010 in Greek, concluded that the difference in treatment was a function of state interests, but the intensity of the preferential treatment of the Greeks from the former Soviet Union can only be explained by electoral and patronage politics.

Since then I continued working on the theoretical framework and published a chapter entitled “Ethnic Return Migration, Selective Incentives, and the Right to Freedom of Movement in Post-Cold War Greece,” in a volume edited by Willem Maas, Democratic Citizenship and the Free Movement of People. In this chapter, I explore whether the right to ‘freedom of movement’ was violated by the Greek repatriation policy toward Greeks from the former Soviet Union. I conclude that the right to ‘freedom of movement’ was not formally violated by the repatriation policy. Nonetheless, the government policy did attempt to influence the settlement pattern of the repatriates that opted to enter their Repatriation program, in an attempt to use the Greeks from the former Soviet Union to change the ethnic demography of Thrace and boost its economic development in the same region, by linking the right to repatriate itself as well as the privileges that accompanied it with settlement in specific locations. Overall, however, labor market opportunities ended up having a higher impact on the settlement patterns of the Greek repatriates from the former Soviet Union than the selective incentives put in place by the Greek administration. As a result, the goals of decentralization and national homogenization of certain peripheral areas did not materialize. Ironically, the poor implementation of the program, the dependency developed through the different stages, and the de facto segregation of this population from the rest of the Greek society have probably hindered rather than facilitated their national integration.

Building on my prior work on Greece, I spent the summer of 2013 in the Republic of Korea exploring whether the logic I had identified in the Greek state was operative outside of Europe and its neighborhood. I spent a month and a half in Seoul, at Korea University, researching their diaspora policy. I conducted over 20 interviews on various aspects of the policy. A policy memo was published as a result of a talk I gave at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, one of the leading think tanks in the country.

Political Development

Beyond my interest in the international dimension of internal processes, I have also systematically studied the effects of institutions in domestic politics. In a co-authored article that Nasos Roussias (University of Sheffield) and I published in Comparative Political Studies we explored the links between regime type, electoral conduct, and political competition in Sub-Saharan Africa. In our piece, we raise several questions: Are the systematic effects of electoral rules the same across regime types? Does the conduct of elections affect the process of strategic coordination between voters and parties? When do votes count? The literature to date has not considered these issues and also analyzes elections in settings where a crucial set of its assumptions are clearly violated. We argued that the mechanism of strategic coordination only operates in democracies that hold free and fair elections, and exhibit the ways it the mechanism is not operative outside of this domain. To conduct this analysis we compiled a new data set on sub-Saharan African elections and demonstrated that the interaction of electoral rules and ethnopolitical cleavages predicts the number of parties only in democratic settings with free and fair elections, failing to produce substantive effects in nondemocratic ones.

Additionally, my teaching and policy engagement led to a policy memo on the EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans. The financial crisis and the recent rounds of enlargement have raised doubts –if not hostility—toward existing, candidate and potential candidate states from the region among western European member states and their constituencies. At the same time popular support for the EU project is at a low point in many parts of the Western Balkans. The involvement of Turkey, Russia, as well as non-state actors in the region complicates the picture for the EU and the US. Realistically, we need to rethink first, the content of the European vision; second, what is the public good that is being provided by this club; and, third, whether the Union can expand and still produce the same quality of public goods as before. The EU, I argue, needs to implement the Lisbon Treaty more effectively. In short, overcoming the troubles at the center of the EU is as important for sustaining popular support in the Western Balkans as is the orientation of the local leadership, if not more. Euro-Atlantic integration may be the only viable alternative for the Western Balkans at the moment, but for it to remain the only alternative in the future the EU itself has to overcome this impasse. If we do not address these questions we may be talking past each other and more importantly over the heads of the citizens of the Western Balkans.

Finally, the recent financial crisis in Europe, with Greece at its epicenter, occupied some of my attention in the past six years. I wrote a series of op-eds (LAtimes, CNN.com, Foreign Affairs, among others) as well as more analytical pieces, including a chapter in an edited volume for Springer in 2011 and an essay entitled “Democratic Politics in Times of Austerity: The Limits of Forced Reform in Greece” in Perspectives on Politics in 2014. My involvement and writings on the crisis led to me being invited to become one of the contributors for the Political Data Yearbook published by the European Journal of Political Research, a major journal of European political science. Richard Katz and Peter Mair began editing the Political Data Yearbook more than two decades ago as an annual special issue of the European Journal for Political Research, where “a network of established political scientists […] were to write individually authored reports on developments in their country during the previous year.”  Since 2010, I have published two co-authored entries (with George Th. Mavrogordatos, University of Athens) and three single authored ones.

nik vlahos, oil on canvas
                                                                                                                                                 Last updated: 09-22-16